Nikon CoolPix P4
“Although this camera is targeted to the snap-it and forget-it crowd it offers a lot of nooks and crannies to explore.”
- 8MP resolution; Vibration Reduction; 3.5x zoom
- Poor low light focusing; strange control layout; ho-hum styling
Nikon recently introduced two new members for its P for Performance series Coolpix point-and-shoot digicams. The P3 and P4 are very similar other than Wi-Fi capability found on the more expensive P3 ($449). Whether you want to spend 50 bucks to wirelessly beam images to a printer or PC is entirely your call but I‘d spend the cash on a high-speed SD card instead. Sometimes a sneaker-net system of taking out your SD card and plugging it into a PC, reader or printer is simple enough for day-to-day needs. The two models are the eventual replacements for the P1 and P2, 8MP and 5MP versions of similar digicams with Wi-Fi b/g that cost $549 and $399, respectively. You gotta love this business when newer models come along with added features such as Vibration Reduction and they cost less.
The P series is in the thick of the 2006 digicam race, offering 8-megapixel resolution, a 3.5x optical zoom, a 2.5-inch LCD, optical image stabilization and a number of Nikon tricks for much less than 400 first presidents. Is it point-and-shoot paradise? Let’s charge it up and see…
Features and Design
Ho-hum. That’s all I can say about the styling of the P4. The metal and plastic case looks like just about every digital camera on the shelf. Still it feels substantial, is nicely compact, measuring 3.6 x 2.4 x 1.2 (WHD, in inches) and tips the scales at 7 ounces with battery and card. When powered down, it easily fits in your pocket. The lens extends from the body about an inch and a half when you power up and a built-in lens cover protects it when it retreats into its cocoon.
The Coolpix P4 has a Nikkor 3.5x optical zoom with a range of 36-126mm, slightly better than the usual 3x 35-105mm. That little bit extra is nice but the $349 Canon Powershot A700 has a 6x zoom. On the down side the Canon has “only” 6MP resolution and no Vibration Reduction. Panasonic’s DMC-FX01 ($349) has OIS and a 3.6x zoom but has less resolution (6MP) so there really isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison out there.
Speaking of VR–which is emblazoned on the front of camera–Nikon’s version is optical image stabilization that physically adjusts the lens to help eliminate shaky images. Panasonic is the leader in this technology with digicams like the DMC-FZ7. Canon, Sony and Kodak also use this advanced technology for their ultra zooms. We’re big fans of OIS compared to the more common electronic image stabilization or anti-shake as found in the Casio Exilim EX-Z1000. It simply works better. There are three options for the Coolpix P4: VR off, VR Active and plain old VR Normal. In VR Normal the system reduces vertical shake when the P4 is panned horizontally and only horizontal shake when panned vertically. VR Active is used for severe shaking such as shooting from a car or boat and doesn’t work when panning. That said keep the camera in VR Normal for most occasions since it’ll help you take non-blurry shots in available light. And if you want to save some battery power, turn it off.
The front of the camera has an AF Assist Lamp—one of my favorite features—and a tiny speaker for video clips (640 x 480 at 30 frames per second is the maximum resolution).
Nikon engineers must have taken the day off when they designed the top of the camera. Instead of placing the mode dial on the far right, it’s in the center, making it rather awkward for adjustments. The dial has the usual settings such as Auto, Program, Aperture Priority, Scene (16 of them), Movie, Setup, resolution, ISO and white balance. There are many options to choose from and the onscreen menus are easy to follow but that dial is simply in the wrong place. Other controls on top include an on/off button, a VR key to change settings and the shutter. Like other new cameras, the on/off button is very tiny, so make sure you don’t trim your nails too closely.
The left side of the Coolpix P4 has a speaker while the right features a mini USB-A/V out port. The bottom has a compartment for an SD card and the supplied lithium ion battery which is rated a poor 200 shots per charge using the CIPA standard. Although the P4 has 23MB of internal memory, this only saves a few shots so budget $50 for a 1GB high-speed card.
Like many other 2006 digicams, the P4 only has a 2.5-inch LCD to frame your shots. The screen is rated only 150K pixels but it worked well, even in direct sunlight. The brightness of the screen is easily adjustable. Nikon engineers took the day off here too by placing the wide/tele key in an awkward spot rather than a ring on the shutter. I found it annoying but others may think it’s quibbling (hey, quibbling is what I do for a living!) The rest of the key layout is the basic four-way controller with OK key as well as others for Menu, playback and delete.
The Coolpix P4 comes with everything you need to get going other than the SD card. These items include the battery, charger, cables, wrist strap, a good 136-page Owner’s Manual and a CD ROM with PictureProject V.1.6 for editing as well as ArcSoft’s Panorama Maker. It’s a good package for folks who want to dip their toes in photo editing as it’s very simple to make adjustments, import images, make prints and so on.
After charging the battery and loading a 2GB high-speed card, it was time to take some photographs.
Image Courtesy of Nikon
The Nikon Coolpix P4 starts up quickly (less than two seconds)—about the time of every quality point-and-shoot 2006 digicam. I initially began in Auto and moved to the many, many options available. Although this camera is targeted to the snap-it and forget-it crowd (about 90 percent of the picture takers out there), it offers the owner a lot of nooks and crannies to explore once you get familiar with the camera. Although you can’t adjust manually adjust the focus or shutter speeds, there is aperture priority and exposure compensation with a histogram. The menu system is easy-to-follow and read but not nearly as sophisticated as those offered by HP, Kodak or Casio.
I took a lot of shots indoors and out. The camera is fairly responsive and there’s not too much lag even as it saved large 8MP files (3264 x 2448 pixels). It definitely slowed down when using the AF Assist since the pre-flash has to do its thing then the actual flash itself fires. If you need to take a number of flash shots in a row, turn it off. In burst (Continuous) mode, the P4 labors to save up to five frames at 1.8 fps (flash off, of course). Speaking of multiple images, the P4 has a Best Shot Selector option. When you turn it on, the camera will shoot up to five shots and save the one with the sharpest focus.
The camera did grab for focus with subjects that didn’t have sharp edges, especially indoors with available light (flash off). I changed focus to Center and that helped a bit.
One of the neat tricks Nikon has incorporated into many of its Coolpix cameras is called D-Lighting. Once you taken a shot, while in playback mode, you hit the menu key and activate it. What the camera does is to adjust the overall brightness of the image. Say if you taken a group shot and one of the family is in shadows, D-Lighting will brighten that area. Just hit the D-Lighting option and a separate file is saved with the original. This type of fix is found in most image editing programs but it’s nice to have it in-camera. Nikon gets a plus-mark for this feature. The camera also has Auto Red Eye Fix to eliminate devil eyes. It did a good job on my cat, a tough test for any red-eye system.
After trying my best to load up the two-gig card, it was time to make some 8.5 x 11 prints (with no editing tweaks) on the trusty Canon six-ink Pixma MP780. The end results were mixed. Colors for the most part were dead-on. They didn’t have much pop but EV and sharpness/contrast tweaks made similar shots more vivid. This is really a taste issue but you can adjust this camera in myriad ways which is a very good thing. There were some definite focusing problems in available light—even with the VR set to Active. Rather than blur, the camera had problems choosing the right section to focus on (this was in flower/macro setting).
Portraits came out nicely, especially when using Portrait Face Priority AF. When you put the camera into this Scene mode, a smiley face (no kidding) appears on screen. The camera will search for a face in the field of view and focus on it. There are two additional settings (or effects) to adjust skin tones.
And not to sound like a scratched CD, the Coolpix P4 has problems with digital noise when you move to 200 (400 is the max). Yet this is far from unusual since almost every compact point-and-shoot digicam has these issues (other than some newer Fujis). If you really want to eliminate noise at higher ISOs, a D-SLR with a larger APS-sized imaging device is the solution.
Image Courtesy of Nikon
Although the Coolpix P4 has its flaws—uneven focusing, noise at high ISOs and a funky control layout—you could do a lot worse for an 8MP primarily point-and-shoot digicam. Picture quality–for the most part–was quite good and you’d be pleased with the results. The P4 is not the fastest camera on the block so keep that in mind especially if shooting soccer or football games will be part of your repertoire. But you will get optical image stabilization, Nikon’s D-Lighting and a raft of Scene modes. This is not point-and-shoot paradise but the goal is in sight. But make sure you pay less than $350 for it.
- Good 8MP images
- VR optical image stabilization
- Built-in red-eye reduction
- Poor control layout
- Not as responsive as it should be
- So-so battery life
- LCD screen should be better
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